I’ve been talking with women about their food journey for several years now, and one frustration I hear again and again is, “It’s so overwhelming! How do I know where to start?”
It’s a great question, and there is an answer, but first, we have to ask two more questions:
- Where do you want to go?
- Where are you now?
Where do you want to go?
It may sound strange to define your first steps by talking about your destination, but as Stephen Covey says in his business classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
Begin with the end in mind…. If the ladder [we’re climbing] is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.
Or, if we haven’t clearly defined our goal, it’ll be a lot harder to get there, or we may not get there at all.
As the Cheshire Cat said:
Most of us — myself included — start out saying, “I want to lose __ pounds.” Or maybe we’re more vague: “I need to eat better.”
These feel like good goals, but there are a few problems. One of these goals includes things you can’t control — a sure set-up for frustration — one of them is too vague, and neither of them engage your emotions. Let’s examine each of these problems.
Things beyond your control.
The problem with weight loss goals is that you can’t completely control what you weigh. Genes, illness, a debilitating accident, or problems with hormones are all things you can’t control, and they can all get in the way of your weight loss goals. So I always recommend that women set goals that don’t depend on things outside their control.
I think it’s better to describe goals in terms of habits or actions that are only up to you, rather than pounds, inches, or pants size.
Goals that are too vague.
“I want to eat healthier” is a great starting place to think about a goal, but it needs more definition, or how will you know when you’re hitting it? For example, you might choose to make one or more of these your first goals:
Eat six servings of vegetables a day.
Replace unhealthy fats with healthy ones.
Have no caffeine after noon.
Cut out sugar and sweets, except on Saturday.
These are just a few examples, but can you see how describing your desired habit changes with exact language really helps you zero in on what you need to do to make that happen? If you’re just going to “eat healthier,” where do you start? No wonder you’ve felt overwhelmed!
However, if your specific goal is to eat more vegetables, then starting places might include finding some good recipes, sampling a veggie or two you’ve never tried, or discovering palatable ways to sneak veggies into foods you already eat.
Another problem with many goals is that they describe a destination, but they don’t include a reason to get there; a reason which, on the balance of your heart, outweighs all the obstacles you might encounter.
For me, that priority was avoiding type 2 diabetes and dementia, as a kindness to my loved ones. Losing my mom to Alzheimer’s lit a passion in me to do whatever was in my power to avoid the same health issues. (Note I said “whatever was within my power.” I know there are parts I can’t control, but I want to be proactive with the parts I can.)
Your bigger reason might be losing 30 pounds so you have the mobility to go on a dream vacation or a mission trip. It might be reducing pain so you’re able to actively play with your grandkids. It might just be being a faithful steward of the body God’s given you, by not feeding it junk food and getting enough sleep.
But you get to decide, because only you know what really matters to you.
Another bit of wisdom from Stephen Covey:
You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage… to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.
What are priorities but sorting things according to what’s most important? You’re finding the bigger “yes” that will help you say “no.”
It’s saying, for example,
“Being able to move around freely is more important to me than skipping my daily walk just because I don’t feel like it.”
“Being healthy in my old age is more important to me than five minutes of pleasure from that dessert-disguised-as-a-drink.”
So knowing where you want to go involves:
1. choosing the activity or principle that fires you up, your bigger yes;
2. clarifying what health improvements need to happen to increase your chance of achieving that; and then
3. defining which habits you need to stop or start to influence those health changes.
A helpful way to describe where you want to go is this:
“I’m going to (your answer to #3 above) to (answer # 2), so I can (answer #1 .)”
I’m going to cut out sugar and sweeteners to ease the pain in my joints, so I can hike with my family.
I’m going to walk five days a week and get seven hours of sleep to keep my mood up, so I can be happier.
I’m going to keep my carbs under 150 grams per day to control my blood sugar, so I can keep my brain sharp.
Where do you want to go?
Honestly, sometimes this isn’t an easy decision. If you’d like help talking through your obstacles and goals, take a look at the support sessions I offer.
Where are you now?
If I texted you and said, “Hey [your-name-here], how do I get to Chicago?”, the first thing you’d ask me is, “Where are you now?” Your directions for me would be very different if I’m coming from Phoenix vs if I were coming from New York.
And yet, we often dive into lifestyle changes like diet and exercise without giving thought to where we are right now. Your current budget, schedule, and state of health matter. Your past successes and failures and how you feel about them matter. The way you talk to yourself, your confidence in the kitchen, your knowledge about nutrition — all of these and more need consideration before you can decide where you need to go from here.
Before you become even more overwhelmed let me assure you: this is figure-out-able!
Here are just a few examples of where you might need to start, depending on where you are.
Are you in a really busy phase of life? Look for a solution that works realistically with your time limitations.
Is emotional eating your downfall? You can learn how to rewire the thoughts that set you up for emotional eating.
Do you feel intimidated by cooking non-processed food? Spend a couple weeks learning about ingredient prep, shopping for real food, and watching some videos on kitchen basics on YouTube or another online resource.
Do you beat yourself up every time you slip up? You’re going to need to relearn how to talk to yourself with grace.
Might you be struggling with depression or anxiety, or do you experience persistent fatigue? Start with a doctor visit.
The five stages of change shed much light on this process. There are specific tools appropriate for each stage; you can learn more about the stages here. You can also take the quiz to find out your stage.